New Alpina Heritage Pilot ¶
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Alpina has been on a roll lately, introducing the hit Startimer and Sailing models last year. This year they updated the Extreme Diver with a new version, similar to the Sailing but with a ceramic bezel, and now they have introduced the highly anticipated Heritage Pilot. With a massive 50mm case and a design heavily inspired by 1930s pilot watches, the Heritage is a very interesting timepiece from a brand that has been making waves in the midrange Swiss market as of late.
Alpina is a sister brand to Frederique Constant, who provide the bulk of the manufacturing facilities (and a series of in-house manufacture calibres as well). Oddly, Alpina is the older brand of the two; founded in 1883, Alpina produced watches until the 1970s when the Quartz Crisis forced them to shutter. Frederique Constant reintroduced the brand as its sporting arm in 2002, and are now beginning to take inspiration from Alpina’s catalogue of historic models. The Heritage Pilot is modeled after a series of manual wind pilot watches made during the 1930s.
Traditional pilot designs featured large cases (usually 45mm to 55mm), precise manual wind movements generally based on pocket watch calibres, and highly visible dials with luminescent hands and Arabic markers. These were strictly “professional” watches, not the sort of thing you would see on an average wrist in an era when 30-35mm men’s watches were the norm. The historic Alpina featured a hunter-calibre movement with sub seconds (as opposed to later big pilots from the Second World War that had centre seconds). As far as pilot watches of the period went, the Alpina was quite elegant, featuring flared lugs and a beautiful dial with a striking railroad track minute scale and Breguet hands. It also had a hunter caseback like a pocket watch, something that would be appropriated for the new design.
The Heritage Pilot is clearly a homage to the original, but has some key differences that make it look a bit more modern. The seconds subdial has been moved to 6 o’clock (a Lepine calibre in watch nerd parlance), the case is simplified, and the crown is bigger. The dial has the historic Alpina logo, but all the markers are applied – look closely and you will see that the dial has remarkable depth, but is made to look like it is printed flat. The distinctive minute track is retained, but the Breguet hands are ditched in favour of swallow-shaped luminescent items. And of course you have the modern conveniences of a sapphire crystal and exhibition caseback (hidden under a nifty button-operated hunter back), as well as a nicely decorated movement (an Alpina-modified ETA 6498 calibre). Overall it’s a nice clean design that looks vintage without being too old fashioned. The details and finishing are modern but the overall look is straight from the 1930s.
Size wise, it’s a big’un - 50mm diameter, and it looks it. It wears well owing to a slim profile and curved lugs, but this is not a watch for dainty wrists. Unlike last week’s Bell & Ross WW2 Bomber, this doesn’t shrink on the wrist. It looks massive. To modern eyes the combination of vintage look with massive size is a bit jarring, but it’s well within the spirit of the original. If you think a modern IWC Big Pilot is big at 47mm across, you should see the original models from the 1940s – they were 55mm, and were supposed to be worn on the outside of a flight suit.
The movement is a tried-and-true ETA Unitas calibre, specifically the 6498. These are workhorse movements that were originally made for pocket watches, but have since become popular engines for large wristwatches. Panerai in particular made the movement popular as the go-to big watch calibre, but it has advantages aside from size. It’s robust and easy to service, runs quite accurately, and is very reliable. In Alpina trim it is decorated with cotes-de-geneves striping and blued screws – like any Alpina, they offer tidy finishing and decoration, in a price range that normally omits it.
The hunter caseback is a neat feature that sets the watch apart. The caseback flips open with the press of a small button at 4 o’clock. In modern fashion there is a glass exhibition window over the movement, along with an engraved ring that has all of the model info and serial number. A traditional hunter back would have nothing covering the movement aside from a hinged dust cap. The inner face of the caseback has a perlage finish, a very nice touch. The exterior has a circular guilloche finish with a centre crest that could be engraved by the owner.
The strap is a simple, no-nonsense brown calfskin with contrasting stitching and a tang buckle. It’s a bit of a letdown considering how detailed the rest of the watch is, but I can see the leather breaking in nicely over time – it’s a heavy leather that usually looks great after it has been worn for a while.
The Heritage Pilot is produced in a limited run of 1883 pieces, in honour of the year the company was founded. Priced under 2000$, it’s an impressive piece that really stands out and channels the spirit of the original without looking contrived. It’s also distinct from the sea of big-pilot style watches out there that usually ape the style of the later 1940s Fliegeruhr and Beobachtungsuhr designs.
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